Banned Books Week 2019

The censorship of reading and education materials is to the detriment of society. We need access to a choice of books, a selection of subjects, and the right to choose what we wish to read. Censorship is something that will provoke various reactions in people, and it’s one of those topics where I feel it’s important not to bend in the face of such reactions.

Over the course of history, writing, reading, and the general population didn’t always see eye to eye. From scribes in Ancient Egypt to religion being practiced in Latin only a few hundred years ago here in England, it is obvious that the power struggle between the literate and those they wished to control was one already tipped in favour of the former. Being able to control what everyone below you heard, saw, and said, which is what happens when you control literacy, means you can control the very essence of civilisation as you know it.

A control over words is something that has happened well into recent years, with books, screenplay, theatre and comics all being censored. Those fighting against it, no matter how long ago, have done us all a service.

This is posted the week after Banned Books Week because I wanted to take the time to think about it. I read what other people had to say, and I wondered what I had to say about it. It’s something that has become bigger and bigger with the growth of the online book communities, and those of writers too. Writers and readers will always have an opinion on such matters, because we are those that feel the first wave of reaction when the pebble is dropped in the pool.

When you look at a list of banned books (or at least the ones we know about, for fear of sounding like a conspiracy theorist), the most curious thing is the reasons they were banned. Everything from anthropomorphized rabbits, to “support of lesbianism”, to breaching the National Secrets laws, it is absolutely fascinating to read through. I’ve read several banned books, and you probably have too, just without knowing. It’s a strange rabbit hole to go down, if you’ll pardon the absolutely awful (but very necessary) pun.

The subject of banned books will always provoke reactions, and for me that reaction is excitement. Why was it banned? How long was it banned for? When can I get my hands on it? And on that note, I’ll leave you with a few of the banned books I’ve read.

Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer.
Banned in the US under the “Anti-Obscenity Act” (1873) which was implemented to stop the sending or receiving of “obscene”, “filthy” or “inappropriate” materials.
Now if you’re looking at this title and happen to be surprised that it’s there, I’m going to assume you either haven’t read the full thing, or don’t know Middle English. And there’s no faults in one or both of those being true, because they are both rather a feat.
The Canterbury Tales is a collection of stories told by various people as they make their way to Canterbury, for pilgrimage. To keep themselves occupied, it’s decided they’ll tell the group a tale or two, as it is rather a long journey. Some of these tales are serious, some are funny, and some are, to use a word from above, downright filthy.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll
Banned in China in 1931 as it was believed that attributing human capabilities such as speaking to animals would make children regard animals and humans on the same level, which would be “disastrous”.
Whilst this might seem vaguely amusing now, it certainly was a serious matter at the time. And it can’t be denied that the book is what I can only imagine tripping on various drugs can be like. That said, it has become a classic around the world, and the idea that all it takes is a rabbit hole to change the whole world upside is something that has captured the hearts of children and adults alike since it was released.

Candide by Voltaire
Banned Another one banned by the U.S., again for obscenity, and again in the 1930s.
Written in 1759, “Candide” is one of the most beautiful things to have come out of the French Enlightenment, in my humble opinion. Voltaire (a nom de plume, naturally) was many things; a historian, writer, philosopher and advocate for freedom from any forces that restrained an individual or government. Over his life, he influenced so many people we now hold in high regard, and wrote more than 2,000 written works (counting pamphlets as well as books). His satire and wit is still of so much value now, and “Candide” is certainly a fine example of both.

Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence
Banned in multiple countries for multiple years. China, Australia, United States and United Kingdom all had issues with this book, for – you guessed it – obscenity.
Whilst sex is certainly a factor, at its heart it is a story of a young woman caught in between two worlds; the one she has to have, and the one she wants to have. When the husband she doesn’t know very well returns injured and distant after the war, she finds herself drawn in by the groundskeeper, who is everything her husband is not. D. H. Lawrence is a true genius; I don’t have anything more to say than that.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
Banned How long have you got? It might be shorter to list where this wasn’t banned… It was a no go in France, UK, Argentina, New Zealand and South Africa.
Whilst I’m not ‘pro’ censoring at all, I do think this book should come with a warning. It’s a book that is undeniably written from another perspective with full strength and no hesitation, but that perspective is one that is flawed and hard to stomach at times. A fully grown adult male talking about his obsessive love for a child is a difficult book to process.

One Day In The Life Of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
Banned, unsurprisingly, from publication in the Soviet Union.
I’m finishing on this one as “Ivan Denisovich” happens to be one of my favourite books. Despite being a work of fiction, it focuses on some realities so horrific that it’s no surprise that the Soviet Union wanted it kept quiet.

Finishing on this final note, I think sometimes there’s some power in things that have been censored. Not just because they’re appealing on principle, but because they are all stories that were silenced for a reason. Whilst many might say “obscenity”, in so many situations (not you, Vladimir), those scenes of intimacy have been ruled unacceptable; why? Breaking down barriers in reading and writing is one of the whole pivotal points of literacy. Let’s never take it for granted.

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